Old Dogs, Older Tricks: The Wild Geese (1978)

the-wild-geese

For as long as there are aging matinee idols looking for a quick paycheck, there will be commando movies there to pay them. While the painfully self-conscious Expendables movies brought this prestigious genre back into box office glory, it’s a format that has been cranking along for decades. Before Stallone, the most successful old man revitalizer was Andrew V. McLaglen (son of actor Victor), who cranked out fogey action flicks from the 60s through the 80s, after a long career in TV Westerns. Cult home video outfit Severin has just released The Wild Geese (1978) on Blu-Ray, which stars the leathery trio of Richard Burton, Richard Harris and Roger Moore. McLaglen’s favorite among his films, it is a bloody imperialist fantasy in which a group of ex-Special Ops Brits parachute into Africa to rescue a deposed leader from a tyrannical despot. Fitfully released in the United States as its distributor was going through bankruptcy, it exudes more testosterone per film frame than Stallone’s pec-flexing opus.

wildgeese

British producer Euan Lloyd had been interested in making a commando picture like The Guns of Navarone (1961) since he became an independent producer in 1968. It wasn’t until he read Daniel Carney’s unpublished novel The Thin White Line that he decided to make one. He purchased the rights in the mid 70s, and started developing the project at United Artists. Remembering a conversation with John Ford, who called McLaglen “a general in the field” according to journalist Tony Earnshaw, Lloyd hired him to direct. Ford was a friend and collaborator with his father Victor McLaglen, but those warm feelings didn’t transfer to United Artists, who wanted Michael “Death Wish” Winner to apply his brand of reactionary nihilism to the material. Lloyd balked, and brought the project to Allied Artists, who were happy to take on a film with that cast, despite the declining fortunes of Burton, fresh off of The Exorcist II (1977).

This was a fallow period in McLaglen’s career, filled with bills paying TV work following the unintentionally sexual title The Last Hard Men (1976), starring Charlton Heston and James Coburn. Ford’s recommendation was The-Wild-Geese-12837_2a godsend, as he told Wheeler Winston Dixon that he thought, “’I’m back in the big time, thank God’, because I had a little slump there.” The international success of The Wild Geese extended his extraordinarily long career into the 1990s.

The setup is simple: Richard Burton is a retired special operations officer hired to rescue the deposed leader of the made up country of Zembala. He gets his old team together, including operations planner Richard Harris, explosives expert Hardy Kruger and smirking muscle Roger Moore, who looks happy to be cashing a paycheck in an inter-Bond year (between The Spy Who Loved Me (’77) and Moonraker (’79)). The extraction goes off without a hitch, but the lily-livered bureaucrats strike a deal with the Zembala dictator and leave the group to be eliminated. Burton and his merry men have to blast their way out to survive, leading to the discomfiting images of a meddling, terroristic British force slaughtering the native African population for the audience’s pleasure.

wildgeesecigUp until this point it is an efficiently entertaining action movie, with an energized Burton and Harris ably deploying the dry wit written by Reginald Rose (12 Angry Men). After Burton knocks back a scotch with a two-handed vise grip, he tells his employer, “my liver has to be buried separately, with honors”. This is the kind of offhand self-referential humor (to Burton’s well-known boozing), that The Expendables films telegraph with belabored obviousness (see: Schwarzenegger’s groan-inducing “I’ll be back” in the sequel). There’s no attempt to hide the stars’ advancing decrepitude, as the shock of grey in Burton’s hair and the enormity of Richard Harris’ glasses attest. Only the tanned and toned Roger Moore seems unaffected by the passage of time, content to hang out in the background and chomp on his cigar regardless of circumstance – which seems to be his character’s sole motivation.

McLaglen is a direct if inelegant filmmaker, his compositions clumping people in the middle of the frame. This makes action sequences legible, but renders them monotonous when repeated throughout the length of the movie’s 134 minute run time. The last third is almost entirely made up of undifferentiated machine gun fire and collapsing bodies. Hardy Kruger, who plays the voice of conscience in the group (and is thus killed off), told Earnshaw that “Andrew butchered my performance by not understanding that you can play a part by listening.” McLaglen is always cutting to action, whether it is shooting or talking, with no rests or pauses in between.  This careening style becomes as tiring and one note as its politics, which presents military intervention in Africa as an unspoken right of the British people. The Wild Geese is a fascinating relic, part of the lineage of imperialistic action cinema that is indebted more to John Wayne’s Vietnam War flag waver The Green Berets (’68) than the influential subversiveness of Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (’67).

0 Response Old Dogs, Older Tricks: The Wild Geese (1978)
Posted By Ghijath Naddaf : December 18, 2012 1:02 pm

Me and my friends were crazy for that Movie back in 1978.
We went and watched it at the Cinema 3 or 4 times.
It was a huge Hit in Germany. I still like it.
It is not as good as “Dark of the Sun” but still better than
“The Expandables” and my favorite Andrew V.McLaglen Movie.

Posted By Ghijath Naddaf : December 18, 2012 1:02 pm

Me and my friends were crazy for that Movie back in 1978.
We went and watched it at the Cinema 3 or 4 times.
It was a huge Hit in Germany. I still like it.
It is not as good as “Dark of the Sun” but still better than
“The Expandables” and my favorite Andrew V.McLaglen Movie.

Posted By swac44 : December 18, 2012 5:02 pm

Funnily enough, the film that came to mind when I saw the subject matter was one starring Victor McLaglen, before I even knew that his son directed this title: 1935′s Professional Soldier, with McLaglen as a soldier of fortune hired to kidnap a king, who turns out to be Freddie Bartholomew. Little Freddie has some great dialogue in this, my favourite line being when McLaglen’s teaching him how to shoot craps, and Freddie says, “Baby requires a new set of footwear!”

Moore’s filmography sure looks odd when you subtract the Bond films, my favourite of the bunch is another McLaglen Jr. outing, ffolkes (known outside of North America as North Sea Hijack with Moore playing counter-terrorist expert Rufus ffolkes, who matches wits with oil platform hijacker Anthony Perkins. Haven’t seen it since I caught it on a trans-Atlantic flight in 1980, but I’ll never forget Moore’s bearded, cat-loving man of action.

Posted By swac44 : December 18, 2012 5:02 pm

Funnily enough, the film that came to mind when I saw the subject matter was one starring Victor McLaglen, before I even knew that his son directed this title: 1935′s Professional Soldier, with McLaglen as a soldier of fortune hired to kidnap a king, who turns out to be Freddie Bartholomew. Little Freddie has some great dialogue in this, my favourite line being when McLaglen’s teaching him how to shoot craps, and Freddie says, “Baby requires a new set of footwear!”

Moore’s filmography sure looks odd when you subtract the Bond films, my favourite of the bunch is another McLaglen Jr. outing, ffolkes (known outside of North America as North Sea Hijack with Moore playing counter-terrorist expert Rufus ffolkes, who matches wits with oil platform hijacker Anthony Perkins. Haven’t seen it since I caught it on a trans-Atlantic flight in 1980, but I’ll never forget Moore’s bearded, cat-loving man of action.

Posted By Cary Watson : December 18, 2012 8:04 pm

I saw this film when it came out and remember being floored by how inept it was. The action sequences were barely TV quality and Burton looked like he was always on the verge of having a heart attack or throwing up. It is interesting as one of the last examples of unintentionally racist filmmaking, with its view that a handful of decrepit middle-aged Brits are more than a match for scores of Africans. It’s easy to dismiss because it’s basically a B-movie, but when a film is good things get more problematical. Zulu (1964) is another imperialist film set in Africa featuring the wholesale slaughter of Africans, but because it’s a “good” film, it kind of flies under the racist radar. My piece on it is here:

http://www.jettisoncocoon.com/2012/08/film-review-zulu-1964.html

Posted By Cary Watson : December 18, 2012 8:04 pm

I saw this film when it came out and remember being floored by how inept it was. The action sequences were barely TV quality and Burton looked like he was always on the verge of having a heart attack or throwing up. It is interesting as one of the last examples of unintentionally racist filmmaking, with its view that a handful of decrepit middle-aged Brits are more than a match for scores of Africans. It’s easy to dismiss because it’s basically a B-movie, but when a film is good things get more problematical. Zulu (1964) is another imperialist film set in Africa featuring the wholesale slaughter of Africans, but because it’s a “good” film, it kind of flies under the racist radar. My piece on it is here:

http://www.jettisoncocoon.com/2012/08/film-review-zulu-1964.html

Posted By tdraicer : December 18, 2012 8:21 pm

Zulu also happens to be a true story.

Posted By tdraicer : December 18, 2012 8:21 pm

Zulu also happens to be a true story.

Posted By Michael : December 18, 2012 8:34 pm

” but because it’s a “good” film, it kind of flies under the racist radar.”
What utter nonsense.

Posted By Michael : December 18, 2012 8:34 pm

” but because it’s a “good” film, it kind of flies under the racist radar.”
What utter nonsense.

Posted By Tom S : December 18, 2012 11:55 pm

@Cary Watson

Your analysis seems somewhat overly simplistic, both of Zulu and of Peckinpah- re: Peckinpah, I think his attitude towards women is somewhat more complex than the simple caveman brutality you seem to see in his work (and I’d recommend Stephen Prince’s book on him to elucidate my point)- but in general, it seems as though you’re assuming that depicting an event automatically means that the filmmakers expect the audience to be on board with it, and to identify with the protagonists and root for the slaughter of whoever it is they’re killing. I’m not at all sure that’s true of Zulu, where it seemed to me the film pretty consciously made the point that the British probably ought not to have been there in the first place, and nicely balanced the individual heroism of the soldiers with the overall sense that they were indulged in a more or less evil activity.

Posted By Tom S : December 18, 2012 11:55 pm

@Cary Watson

Your analysis seems somewhat overly simplistic, both of Zulu and of Peckinpah- re: Peckinpah, I think his attitude towards women is somewhat more complex than the simple caveman brutality you seem to see in his work (and I’d recommend Stephen Prince’s book on him to elucidate my point)- but in general, it seems as though you’re assuming that depicting an event automatically means that the filmmakers expect the audience to be on board with it, and to identify with the protagonists and root for the slaughter of whoever it is they’re killing. I’m not at all sure that’s true of Zulu, where it seemed to me the film pretty consciously made the point that the British probably ought not to have been there in the first place, and nicely balanced the individual heroism of the soldiers with the overall sense that they were indulged in a more or less evil activity.

Posted By Tom S : December 18, 2012 11:56 pm

Though I don’t think that levying a charge of racism against a movie where black men are slaughtered by the hundred is ‘utter nonsense’ that should be dismissed out of hand. Nor do I think being ‘based on a true story’ absolves a film of racist implications. Birth of a Nation was theoretically based on real events.

Posted By Tom S : December 18, 2012 11:56 pm

Though I don’t think that levying a charge of racism against a movie where black men are slaughtered by the hundred is ‘utter nonsense’ that should be dismissed out of hand. Nor do I think being ‘based on a true story’ absolves a film of racist implications. Birth of a Nation was theoretically based on real events.

Posted By Jenni : December 19, 2012 12:31 am

In Zulu, aren’t the Brits at another fort massacred by Zulu warriors, and the heros of the movie are defending a mission, set up by Europeans from another country? The point of the film, true story, is that an outnumbered mission is successfully defended by a much larger force of warriors. Against all odds that probably had the mission’s defenders dying, they survived and were saluted at the end by the warriors trying to decimate them!

As for Roger Moore, one of his latest films is on the Hallmark Channel, A Princess for Christmas. My daughters want to dvr it. I might do it just to see Mr. Moore, who I haven’t seen one of his films in a long time.

Posted By Jenni : December 19, 2012 12:31 am

In Zulu, aren’t the Brits at another fort massacred by Zulu warriors, and the heros of the movie are defending a mission, set up by Europeans from another country? The point of the film, true story, is that an outnumbered mission is successfully defended by a much larger force of warriors. Against all odds that probably had the mission’s defenders dying, they survived and were saluted at the end by the warriors trying to decimate them!

As for Roger Moore, one of his latest films is on the Hallmark Channel, A Princess for Christmas. My daughters want to dvr it. I might do it just to see Mr. Moore, who I haven’t seen one of his films in a long time.

Posted By Cary Watson : December 19, 2012 1:26 am

It’s true that in Zulu points are made about the Zulus being brave and this being their country, but the Boers are also allowed to say it’s their country. More tellingly, the Zulus aren’t allowed any speaking roles, not even via sub-titles, and this depersonalizes them into anonymous killing machines. The Brits are full of character and personality, almost all of it positive, and this makes it a dead cert we’ll be cheering for them. And the film closes with a roll call of the soldiers who won Victoria Crosses, not a mention that this battle was one of the first steps on the road to apartheid. This finale alone shows that Zulu is mostly about British triumphalism. As for Peckinpah, I guess I’ll allow a director one salacious rape sequence in his career, but two? Not to mention various other attacks and humiliations aimed at women. At best he was a sexist, which shouldn’t be that surprising, lots of men of his generation were. I’d really like to hear what some female film critics have to say on this issue, especially after a triple bill of The Getaway, Alfredo Garcia and Straw Dogs. I’m denying Peckinpah could be a dynamic filmmaker, but he was also, at times, a misogynist. It’s possible to be both.

Posted By Cary Watson : December 19, 2012 1:26 am

It’s true that in Zulu points are made about the Zulus being brave and this being their country, but the Boers are also allowed to say it’s their country. More tellingly, the Zulus aren’t allowed any speaking roles, not even via sub-titles, and this depersonalizes them into anonymous killing machines. The Brits are full of character and personality, almost all of it positive, and this makes it a dead cert we’ll be cheering for them. And the film closes with a roll call of the soldiers who won Victoria Crosses, not a mention that this battle was one of the first steps on the road to apartheid. This finale alone shows that Zulu is mostly about British triumphalism. As for Peckinpah, I guess I’ll allow a director one salacious rape sequence in his career, but two? Not to mention various other attacks and humiliations aimed at women. At best he was a sexist, which shouldn’t be that surprising, lots of men of his generation were. I’d really like to hear what some female film critics have to say on this issue, especially after a triple bill of The Getaway, Alfredo Garcia and Straw Dogs. I’m denying Peckinpah could be a dynamic filmmaker, but he was also, at times, a misogynist. It’s possible to be both.

Posted By Cary Watson : December 19, 2012 1:51 am

Typo alert: In that last sentence I meant to write “I’m not denying”

Posted By Cary Watson : December 19, 2012 1:51 am

Typo alert: In that last sentence I meant to write “I’m not denying”

Posted By BobL : December 19, 2012 3:04 am

The smarmy arrogance of the opening sentence of this article is shameful. None of the four male leads in this film could be dismissed as matinee idols.

Posted By BobL : December 19, 2012 3:04 am

The smarmy arrogance of the opening sentence of this article is shameful. None of the four male leads in this film could be dismissed as matinee idols.

Posted By Doug : December 19, 2012 3:34 am

Excuse me, but I need to go off topic for just a moment-I just noticed a tiny gif emoticon at the bottom of every post page here at Morlocks-is anyone else seeing this? Does anyone know why it is there? Perhaps a traffic counter?
Thanks, and please forgive the interruption.

Posted By Doug : December 19, 2012 3:34 am

Excuse me, but I need to go off topic for just a moment-I just noticed a tiny gif emoticon at the bottom of every post page here at Morlocks-is anyone else seeing this? Does anyone know why it is there? Perhaps a traffic counter?
Thanks, and please forgive the interruption.

Posted By tdraicer : December 19, 2012 6:18 pm

While one certainly can read Zulu as being “racist” or about “British trimuphalism”, it can also be read quite differently, and how one chooses to do so may say as much about the reviewer as the film.

Posted By tdraicer : December 19, 2012 6:18 pm

While one certainly can read Zulu as being “racist” or about “British trimuphalism”, it can also be read quite differently, and how one chooses to do so may say as much about the reviewer as the film.

Posted By Doug : December 20, 2012 3:52 am

To Cary Watson-I didn’t know why ‘Tom S’ was picking on your opinion of Peckinpah until I checked your site. I’m with you-Peck was basically a talented but horrible human being. If he had been clean and sober during his career, he would have made different, probably less interesting movies, but we get what he gave.
As for the Zulu/Brit Imperialism, I have five words that may make you smile:
“Riotous Assembly” by Tom Sharpe.
(also the slightly less interesting sequel: “Indecent Exposure”)
There is more to Sharpe than Henry Wilt.
p.s. I just kindled your book-I’m sure it will be a good read.
Have a good night.

Posted By Doug : December 20, 2012 3:52 am

To Cary Watson-I didn’t know why ‘Tom S’ was picking on your opinion of Peckinpah until I checked your site. I’m with you-Peck was basically a talented but horrible human being. If he had been clean and sober during his career, he would have made different, probably less interesting movies, but we get what he gave.
As for the Zulu/Brit Imperialism, I have five words that may make you smile:
“Riotous Assembly” by Tom Sharpe.
(also the slightly less interesting sequel: “Indecent Exposure”)
There is more to Sharpe than Henry Wilt.
p.s. I just kindled your book-I’m sure it will be a good read.
Have a good night.

Posted By Cary Watson : December 20, 2012 1:36 pm

To Doug: Thanks for Kindling Dead Bunny, if that’s the right word. I’m going to have to try Tom Sharpe; people have been telling me for years to read him. Once again, thanks!

Posted By Cary Watson : December 20, 2012 1:36 pm

To Doug: Thanks for Kindling Dead Bunny, if that’s the right word. I’m going to have to try Tom Sharpe; people have been telling me for years to read him. Once again, thanks!

Posted By Juana Maria : December 23, 2012 12:38 pm

To all those reading this:I mean no ill will no Ghijath Naddaf, but does he mean “The Expandables” or “The Expendables”? Being a teacher of English to foreigners I’ve very sympathetic to those learning another language. I still struggle myself with the right words. Anyway,back on topic,there is a sequel to “the Wild Geese” with Lee Van Cleef! Yay! I’ve never seen more than the trailer for it…so if TCM would like to play it some time would be nice.

Posted By Juana Maria : December 23, 2012 12:38 pm

To all those reading this:I mean no ill will no Ghijath Naddaf, but does he mean “The Expandables” or “The Expendables”? Being a teacher of English to foreigners I’ve very sympathetic to those learning another language. I still struggle myself with the right words. Anyway,back on topic,there is a sequel to “the Wild Geese” with Lee Van Cleef! Yay! I’ve never seen more than the trailer for it…so if TCM would like to play it some time would be nice.

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